WASHINGTON (AP) — With just six weeks to avoid a possible election catastrophe, Democrats are trying to limit the damage with a closing argument that's more plea than platform: We know you voters are furious with us, but just let us explain why the Republicans would be worse.
The strategy requires an autumn influx of voters willing to view the election as a choice between two imperfect parties — and imperfect candidates on each ballot line — rather than as a chance to slap the Washington establishment that the public seems to dislike so deeply.
But the Democrats admit the Republicans have a big emotional advantage with voters who are fed up with high unemployment, soaring deficits and what many see as an arrogant Congress and administration that rammed a revolutionary health care plan down their throats.
If voters keep burning with the throw-the-bums-out fever that animated so many primaries, Democrats would be likely to lose more than 40 House seats, costing them the majority and positioning Republicans to block virtually any Obama initiatives in the next two years. Losing the Senate majority, which would require a 10-seat Republican gain, is less likely.
Democratic candidates want to convince these voters that no matter how much they hate the status quo, they would be worse off under a Republican Party that hasn't learned from its mistakes and is lurching ever harder to the right.
"This needs to be a choice, not a referendum" on the Democratic-led Congress and Obama administration, said Erik Smith, a Democratic campaign adviser.
President Barack Obama, campaigning for a Senate contender in Connecticut on Thursday, said of Republicans: "All they are going to be feeding us is anger and resentment and not a lot of new ideas. But that's a potent force when people are scared and they're hurting."
Democrats already have given up on keeping several seats, including a House seat in Tennessee and a Senate seat in North Dakota. Party insiders aren't quite in full panic mode. But they are intensely debating how to frame the final message, which candidates to help with last-minute spending, and where to focus ground troops.
Senate campaign officials said they have made no final decisions about how to allocate money, but Democrat Brad Ellsworth is no longer airing TV ads in his bid to hold the Indiana Senate seat left open by retiring Democrat Evan Bayh. Republican nominee Dan Coats leads in polls there.
Ellsworth spokeswoman Liz Farrar said her campaign will resume TV ads at some point. "Voters in Indiana have not seen or heard the last of Brad Ellsworth," she said.
Eric Schultz of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee would not discuss aid to Ellsworth, but he said, "We have to make a lot of spending decisions in the next 45 days."
For Democratic House candidates, triage is already under way. The Washington-based party headquarters recently cut off aid to Brett Carter, seen as having little chance to hold the Tennessee House seat being vacated by Democratic Rep. Bart Gordon.
Financial reports show House and Senate candidates have raised nearly $1.2 billion in this election cycle, well ahead of the pace for previous contests. Overall, Democratic and Republican candidates have raised nearly equal amounts. But the Democratic Party, including its state affiliates, has a 3-2 fundraising advantage over the GOP and its affiliates.
Helping close the gap is a web of conservative groups that have spent millions of dollars to help Republican candidates. Among the most prominent is American Crossroads and its allied groups, created under the direction of former Bush political strategist Karl Rove and former Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie.
What's more, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce aims to spend up to $75 million on the election, mostly for Republicans.
Organized labor plans to spend $100 million or more for Democrats. The AFL-CIO has pledged to spend more than $50 million, and the Service Employees International Union has a $44 million political budget. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which is also pledging millions to assist Democrats, has been airing ads in key battlegrounds.
In a possible bright spot for Democrats, national party officials say they will spend $50 million for on-the-ground organizing, sending out volunteers to contact voters and "persuadable" people. That includes 15 million to 20 million who voted for the first time in 2008, when Obama inspired many young and minority voters.
GOP House campaign spokesman Paul Lindsay says that every poll finds far more enthusiasm among Republican voters than Democrats, so "they have a problem on their hands when it comes to voter intensity."
Obama remains a relatively popular president, certainly compared with Congress, and he recently transferred $4.5 million from his presidential campaign account to Democratic House, Senate and gubernatorial efforts. He plans campaign stops in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Nevada, all of which have competitive Senate or gubernatorial races or both.
National Democratic officials, meanwhile, are sparring over how best to frame their argument in the final six weeks. A chief dispute is how to respond to the tea party's remarkable success, capped by Tuesday's Delaware Senate Republican primary. Insurgent Christine O'Donnell stunned political pros by defeating longtime lawmaker Mike Castle, a moderate.
Veteran Democratic consultant Chris Kofinis was drafting a memo Friday urging candidates and party officials to boost their efforts to portray the GOP as a party hijacked by extremists with unorthodox ideas such as dismantling Social Security. Democratic candidates should woo two crucial groups — persuadable independents and disillusioned liberals — by highlighting the threat of "a radical, extreme fringe that will control and does control the Republican Party," Kofinis said in an interview.
So far, Obama and other top Democrats are sticking more closely to a different theme: If voters return Republicans to power, they say, it will bring back Bush administration policies that led to the financial near-collapse of 2008-2009. This past-is-prologue warning depicts veteran Republican lawmakers, such as House Minority Leader John Boehner, as unrepentant Bush loyalists and entrenched lackeys of wealthy special interest groups.
Obama likes to warn voters against returning the government's car keys to those who "drove us into the ditch" in the first place.
Kofinis thinks the tea party gives Democrats a better, more forward-looking opening. "I don't think the Bush argument works," he said. "No one knows who Boehner is."
Democratic candidates should marry the two messages, not choose between them, says Rep. Chris Van Hollen, who oversees the party's efforts to win House seats. Tea party nominees, he said, "represent Bush economic policy on steroids."
Establishment Republicans such as Boehner already want to loosen regulations on Wall Street, the workplace and other areas, Van Hollen said. Libertarian-leaning tea party activists will push them even further.
Matt Bennett, vice president of the Democratic-leaning group Third Way, cites polls finding that most voters, despite an overall anger with the establishment, support Democrats on many specific issues, such as tax cuts for the wealthy. Democratic House and Senate candidates, he said, should constantly tell voters "there's only two choices, there's no other."
Specific issues will hardly matter, however, if Democrats can't persuade middle-of-the-road voters to calmly weigh the ramifications of lashing out at the party in power.
"The most important thing Democrats can do is unnationalize the election," said Democratic strategist David DiMartino. "In every state and every district, it has to be a choice between them and us. Our policies are more popular than theirs."
Associated Press writers Jim Kuhnhenn and Liz Sidoti contributed to this report.